Music, Independence & Gatekeeping

Music, Independence & Gatekeeping.

The current era of music has been dominated by streaming, with Spotify and other platforms giving independent artists a direct line to a broad base consumers and audiences. This is a huge step for a community and industry that at one point made it almost impossible to reach large and broad audiences without attachment to a major music label. For independent artists, not having the reach or funding to access certain audiences can make it really difficult, and at a certain point, it used to seem worthless to bother trying to be independent. This has shifted, but you still see the corporate power structures at play in the music industry which have always been there in one form or another.

There have been examples, throughout music history, of artists who purposely flaut the accepted way of things in order to show how pointless those agreed upon norms are. Rappers like Tech N9ne and Chance have shown, for example, how successful you can be when you are label-free. But that does not mean they have never had to grovel, to impress and ultimately win over people in the music industry who are tastemakers to some extent. These people, who many refer to as Gatekeepers, are those that keep the realm of music safe, supposedly, from those undeserving of entry. They make sure that what the general listening public hears is the best, either in quality, artistry or some other benchmark. Long have they wielded this power, and many, despite some holding on to it too long, earned it.

Sway Calloway, host of the radio show “Sway in the Morning” on Sirius XM’s Shade 45 channel, is a fixture in the rap community. He has worked tirelessly to promote rap and its artists. There are other people like him, but Sway is probably the most important of these radio Gatekeepers whose musical decisions pulse in the ears of people worldwide. So, it is important to take a look at the work people like him do and how this influences how we listen to music. As a Gatekeeper, Sway has carried himself with a level of respect, dignity and composure that one can’t help but respect, and had artists from all aspects of hip hop on his show to demonstrate their abilities, but also present themselves to his audience with a chance to be themselves without fear of judgement from him or his co-hosts.

Chance The Rapper has seen what some may consider unfathomable success, and rightfully so. From the time of his breakout release Acid Rap (released just shy of his 20th birthday), he collaborated with numerous artists (Justin Bieber, DJ Khaled, Kanye West, Rapsody, Action Bronson, Skrillex, Cardi B, Macklemore, the list goes on), performed at Coachella, headlined Lollapalooza, numerous activist works, all while fully independent (it’s been argued what really constitutes independence for Chance, but we can have that debate in another Newsletter). All this without compromising his image, but developing and growing in front of the eyes of the public, and not necessarily saying outright he’ll never sign a deal ever (correct us if we’re wrong), but more so that one hasn’t offered itself as being good enough to consider and take.

The shift in needing a label and staying with one is always hard to watch, especially for talents that haven’t gotten where many wish to see them be. Lupe FIasco & Atlantic Records is an example of one (OF MANY) stories of artists having label troubles, Atlantic explicitly being known for having developed a reputation as a label that has become a detriment to many an artist and their growth/development. Metro Boomin has been vocal about his distaste with the label and their APG, a related set of businesses (Artist Partner Group and Artist Publishing Group). Joyner Lucas recently left the label to become fully independent. It may even be worth noting that the same Yodeling Kid (Mason Ramsey, who off of hype and clout made it to Coachella) has signed with Atlantic as well. Whether that will be beneficial to his career is something we’ll have to wait and see. The success (or relative lack thereof) of Wale’s 5th album SHINE has been argued as his catalyst for leaving the label (although if it leads to more bodies of work like the 3 ep’s he released across 2018, I’m not complaining).

Mystifiying as it may be this all centres around Money. Having the finances to actually fund ones musical aspirations is something that is not easy. Even support from an emotional/spiritual standpoint can be difficult for many. Regions/Cultures that have a vast number of creative art based success stories can easily be wary of having their own children attempt to see success in these fields. Many a child have been told/warned to stay away from the easy to fail opportunities that exist in attempting things like music, painting, acting, sports the list goes on. It is seen as more rational/realistic to attempt to be a doctor or lawyer if someone wants that support from their family and friends. Every parent loves Bob Marley, Beenie Man, Oliver Samuels or even Usain Bolt, but would be concerned if their own children wanted to try and be like them. And even if that support is there, the finances may not be. Wealth, especially the generational kind, doesn’t exist for everyone. Which is why signing to a record label, though limiting in some ways, seems so appealing to many artists. Having those early finances to get your dreams off the ground can mean everything to some artists, and mean everything to their family/friends. Having that advance to pay off student loans, cover bills, even just fill the fridge, can be extremely crucial in those early stages of success.

As Lupe Fiasco puts it in this tweet post-2019 Grammys

Clayton Tomlinson and Anfernee “Oshawa is low-key a second home” Cadogan


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